2014 favorites

I’m late to the game, as always, but I was having too much fun enjoying the holidays. I have no regrets, but I do always love to review the previous year. Here are some of my favorites.

Corn Tortillas
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As if tacos weren’t delicious enough, fresh corn tortillas come along. I’ve got it to where I can make a batch for me and Dave in about fifteen minutes, so it’s definitely worth it just for the perfect foldability, not to mention how great they taste.

Strawberry Daiquiris
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Dave and I have tried dozens of recipes for tiki drinks over the last few months, and I love so many of them. Still, these strawberry daiquiris are safe in their position as my favorite cocktail.

Strawberry Shortcake Cupcakes
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Of the many desserts I made last year, I think this one was my favorite. It’s so perfect for spring.

Braised Artichokes
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I’m eagerly waiting for artichokes to come back into season so I can start making this every week, just like last year.

Crab Towers with Gazpacho and Avocado Salsas
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Not only are crab, avocado, and tomatoes some of my favorite foods, but they make a great match, especially in these beautiful towers.

Halibut in White Wine Sauce with Green Beans and Tomato-Scallion Relish
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Now that Dave cooks fish for dinner once a week, I don’t cook it myself much, but this is one I made over and over this year.

Cocoa Nib Peanut Butter Bites
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We’ve already got our annual family beach trip planned, which gives me an excuse to make these healthier treats in my annual pre-beach trip diet.

Quinoa Puttanesca
quinoa puttanesca 2Dave did a bunch of traveling last year for work, so I probably made this more than any other meal. While I much prefer him to be home, this is a nice consolation prize for when he’s away.

Peach Raspberry Galette
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My coworkers are always appreciative when I bring snacks in to share, but they went crazy for this.

Sweet Potato Mezzalune with Sausage Ricotta Filling
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Everyone knows that filled dumplings are the best foods, whether ravioli, potstickers, or empanadas, and that’s especially true when it’s sausage and cheese wrapped in crisped and browned sweet potato gnocchi dough.

Let’s see what 2015 brings, shall we?

buche de noel

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I was tense for the entire 2½ hours I spent making this cake. I’d signed up to bring it to the office holiday party potluck, and I wasn’t sure which title was more commonly known, yule log or buche de noel, so I wrote down both. This was a mistake; several hours later, Big Boss came barreling down the hall blustering about using fancy French words and/or bringing a piece of wood to the party.

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He was mollified when I told him it was a cake. “Chocolate”, he asked? “Um, yes, chocolate”, even though I hadn’t really planned on chocolate.

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So I felt like the stakes were high. And considering that I hadn’t made a rolled cake in seven years, the risk was high as well. This is why I spent all afternoon nervous, waiting to make a mistake that would result in a cake disaster.

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There were no cake disasters. It wasn’t a perfectly smooth process – the grocery store ran out of mascarpone, the cake cracked when I rolled it, my baking pan is too small so the spiral was loose, the ganache didn’t set up, the cake cracked again when I tried to move it, and the last minute sugared rosemary and cranberries I made for decorations weren’t dry so the sugar dissolved instead of sparkled – but there was nothing that a little ganache couldn’t cover up. Once the ganache was frantically put in the freezer so it would set, that is.

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Substituting cream cheese for mascarpone worked in my favor in the end, because when Big Boss asked me what the filling was made of, I told him cream cheese and didn’t mention the mascarpone. I’ve learned my lesson about fancy European words. Fortunately, the cream cheese/mascarpone filling really was delicious, just like the chocolate cake, and the ganache. Even the mushrooms were all gone by the time we left the party. It was an unqualified success; still, next year I’m bringing all-American cheesecake.

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Bittersweet Chocolate Yule Log (slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

Serves 8 to 10

The ganache didn’t firm up for me in an hour at room temperature, so I put it in the refrigerator for a 10 minutes or so before icing the cake.

I was afraid to move the cake after it was formed and frosted, so I put it together directly on the serving plate. I slipped thin strips of wax paper under the edges of the cake to catch extra ganache, then discarded the strips before serving.

My grocery store ran out of mascarpone, so I used half mascarpone and half cream cheese in the filling, which worked very well.

The original recipe calls for an espresso-flavored filling instead of vanilla, but I didn’t think espresso would be as popular with the crowd I served this to. If you’d rather have the espresso, replace the vanilla flavorings in the mascarpone cream with 2 teaspoons espresso powder.

Dark Chocolate Ganache:
¾ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (high-quality), chopped
1 tablespoon Cognac or brandy

Vanilla Bean-Mascarpone Cream:
½ cup heavy cream
seeds from 1 vanilla bean
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar (1½ ounces)
16 ounces mascarpone cheese (about 2 cups)

¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour (about 1¼ ounces), plus more for dusting baking sheet
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into two pieces
2 tablespoons cold water
¼ cup cocoa (¾ ounce), Dutch-processed, sifted, plus more for unmolding and garnish
⅛ teaspoon table salt
6 large eggs, separated, room temperature
⅓ cup granulated sugar (2⅓ ounces)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar

1. For the Dark Chocolate Ganache: Bring the cream and butter to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Place the chocolate in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. With the machine running, gradually add the hot cream and brandy through the feed tube and process until smooth and thickened, about 3 minutes. Transfer the ganache to a medium bowl and let stand at room temperature 1 hour, until spreadable (ganache should have consistency of soft icing).

2. For the Vanilla Bean-Mascarpone Cream: Bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla seeds, extract, and confectioners’ sugar; cool slightly. With a rubber spatula, beat the mascarpone in a medium bowl until softened. Gently whisk in the cooled cream mixture until combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

3. For the Roulade: Adjust an oven rack to the upper-middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray an 18 by 12-inch rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, cover the pan bottom with parchment paper, and spray the parchment with nonstick cooking spray; dust baking sheet with flour, tapping out excess.

4. Bring 2 inches of water to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Combine the chocolate, butter, and water in a small heatproof bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set the bowl over the saucepan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and heat until the butter is almost completely melted and the chocolate pieces are glossy, have lost definition, and are fully melted around edges, about 15 minutes. (Do not stir or let water in saucepan come to boil.) Remove the bowl from heat, unwrap, and stir until smooth and glossy. While the chocolate is melting, sift the cocoa, flour, and salt together into a small bowl and set aside.

5. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the egg yolks at medium-high speed until just combined, about 15 seconds. With the mixer running, add half of the sugar. Continue to beat, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary until the yolks are pale yellow and the mixture falls in a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted, about 8 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to combine, scraping down the bowl once, about 30 seconds. Turn the mixture into a medium bowl; wash the mixer bowl and beaters and dry with a kitchen towel. (If you have 2 mixer bowls, leave the yolk mixture in the mixer bowl; wash and dry the beaters and use second bowl in step 6.)

6. In a clean bowl with clean beaters, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With the mixer running, add about 1 teaspoon of the remaining sugar; continue beating until soft peaks form, about 40 seconds. Gradually add the remaining sugar and beat until the egg whites are glossy and supple and hold stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted, about 1 minute longer. Do not overbeat (if the whites look dry and granular, they are overbeaten). While the whites are beating, stir the chocolate mixture into the yolks. With a rubber spatula, stir a quarter of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining whites until almost no streaks remain. Sprinkle the dry ingredients over the egg and chocolate mixture and fold in quickly but gently.

7. Pour the batter into the prepared pan; using an offset icing spatula and working quickly, smooth the surface and spread the batter into the pan corners. Bake until the center of the cake springs back when touched with a finger, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes.

8. While the cake is cooling, lay a clean kitchen towel over a work surface and sift 1 tablespoon cocoa over the towel; with your hands, rub the cocoa into the towel. Run a paring knife around the perimeter of the baking sheet to loosen the cake. Invert the cake onto the towel and peel off the parchment.

9. For the finished cake: Starting at a long side, roll the cake and towel together into a jelly roll shape. Cool for 15 minutes, then unroll the cake and towel. Using an offset spatula, immediately spread the mascarpone cream filling evenly over the surface of the cake, almost to the edges. Reroll the cake gently but snugly around the filling. Set a large sheet of parchment paper on an overturned rimmed baking sheet and set the cake seam-side down on top. Trim both ends of the cake on a diagonal. Reserve ¼ cup of ganache for attaching meringue mushrooms. Spread the remaining ganache over the roulade with a small icing spatula. Use a fork to make wood-grain striations on the surface of the ganache before it has set. Refrigerate the cake, uncovered, on a baking sheet to slightly set the icing, about 20 minutes.

10. When ready to serve, carefully slide two wide metal spatulas under the cake and transfer the cake to a serving platter. Arrange the meringue mushrooms around the cake, attaching them with dabs of reserved ganache. Sift a light dusting of cocoa over the mushrooms. Sift the yule log with confectioners’ sugar. Serve within 2 hours.

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Meringue Mushrooms (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes about 30

I didn’t need 30 mushrooms, so I cut the recipe in half, using a hand mixer and a small mixing bowl. Although maybe 30 mushrooms wouldn’t have been so bad, considering how smooth and airy and delicious these were.

CI note: If the caps and stems become soggy during storage, crisp them in a 200-degree oven for 30 minutes before assembling the mushrooms.

¼ cup water
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large egg whites, room temperature
Pinch table salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Adjust oven racks to the middle and lowest positions and heat the oven to 200 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Combine the water and sugar in heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil, swirling the pan once or twice, until the sugar has dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. If necessary, wipe down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan with a damp pastry brush. Cook, uncovered, until the temperature registers 238 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes.

3. While the sugar is cooking, place the egg white in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk. Beat at medium-low speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the salt and cream of tartar and beat, gradually increasing speed to high, until the whites hold soft peaks, about 1 minute.

4. With the mixer at medium speed, slowly pour the hot syrup into the egg whites, avoiding the whisk. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until the meringue cooks to room temperature and becomes very thick and shiny, 5 to 10 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the vanilla.

5. Fit a pastry bag with a ¼-inch pastry tip and fill with the meringue. Pipe about 30 caps and an equal number of stems onto the prepared pans.

6. Bake the meringues for 2 hours, then turn off the oven, leaving the meringues in the oven until very dry and crisp, about 30 minutes longer. Cool the mushroom caps and stems on the baking sheets. (Caps and stems may be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.) To assemble the mushrooms, use ganache to glue the caps and stems together.

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cranberry swirl shortbread

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I was not feeling it the Monday night I made this shortbread. I was, however, feeling it the day before, when I had a relatively chore-free Sunday, and went ahead and made the cranberry filling, a double batch. In fact, I was so in the mood to bake that afternoon that I made a batch of my favorite Christmas cookies, just for the heck of it. But I forgot how long it takes to shape those cookies into their spirals and stripes and by the time that was over, I’d pretty much had my fill of baking.

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Which left me with a weeknight to make the shortbread dough, roll out four circles, chill the circles, partially bake two of the circles, layer them with cranberries, add more dough, pipe on more cranberry filling, score the dough, and add designs in the filling. All when I just wasn’t feeling it.

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My coworkers, however, were definitely feeling it the next day when a double batch disappeared in no time. Not only are these bright and attractive – even when you rush through making the design – but they’re tender and sweet with refreshingly tart filling. I will definitely make these again, but next time I’ll make sure I’m in the mood.

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Cranberry Swirl Shortbread (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes 16 wedges

4 ounces (1 cup) fresh or frozen cranberries
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon grated orange zest plus 2 tablespoons juice
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (2 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces and chilled

1. Bring the cranberries, ¼ cup granulated sugar, orange zest and juice, and cinnamon to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the cranberries have burst and the juice has just started to thicken, 2 to 4 minutes; let cool for 1 hour.

2. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Process the flour, confectioners’ sugar, salt, and remaining ¼ cup granulated sugar in a food processor until combined, about 5 seconds. Scatter the butter over the top and process until the dough starts to come together, about 1 minute. Gently knead the dough by hand until no floury bits remain. (Do not wash the food processor bowl.) Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a 9-inch circle on parchment paper; refrigerate for 20 minutes. Process the cooled cranberry mixture in the food processor until smooth, about 20 seconds.

3. Press one dough circle into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and poke all over with fork. Bake on a baking sheet until the edges are light golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating the tart pan halfway through baking. Spread the dough with ¼ cup cranberry puree, the top with second dough circle, and poke all over with fork. Pipe the remaining cranberry puree over the dough in a spiral shape. Score the dough into 16 wedges. Between the score marks, lightly run a knife in the opposite direction of the cranberry spiral. Bake until the top is pale golden, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the tart pan halfway through baking. Let the shortbread cool for 10 minutes, then remove the outer ring of the tart pan. Cut through the score marks, transfer the wedges to a wire rack, and let cool completely before serving.

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creamy brussels sprouts and mushroom lasagna

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After making a few lasagnas that all started to look the same, I needed new ideas. Here’s one, cooked in homemade broth with meatballs between the layers of pasta, that breaks the mold. 19 steps! 125 miniscule meatballs! I’ve been excited about that recipe since the moment I saw it, almost a year and a half ago, but even with my obsessive weekend cooking habits, I haven’t found time to make it.

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This one isn’t quite that original, but I had never put brussels sprouts, one of my favorite vegetables, in lasagna before. I can’t remember adding heavy cream to lasagna either, instead depending on the bechamel and cheese to add rich creaminess.

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I did reduce the cream by half, and I still found it plenty decadent. The mushrooms dominated the flavor, but not in the overly earthy way of some pure mushroom lasagnas. It definitely hit the spot, even without meat or tomatoes, some of my standard lasagna crutches. But I still want a completely free weekend that I can spend making homemade broth and (125!) tiny meatballs to layer with fresh pasta.

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Creamy Brussels Sprouts and Mushroom Lasagna (slightly adapted from The Food Lab)

8-10 servings

Stirring the creamed mushrooms and the creamed brussels sprouts together does not result in an attractive mixture. However, it won’t make a difference in the final lasagna, and it simplifies the layering.

As the picture above shows, I divided the ingredients between a loaf pan and an 8-by-8-inch pan. I baked one immediately and put the other in the freezer for an easy and indulgent meal a few weeks later.

For instructions on boiling and rinsing the noodles, see step 4 of this recipe. You’ll only need half of a recipe of fresh pasta.

I’ve increased the brussels sprouts and decreased the mushrooms slightly, because even though I didn’t have enough mushrooms when I made this, they were the dominant flavor. I love brussels sprouts and want to taste them.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
16 ounces button mushrooms, roughly chopped in a food processor in 4 batches
2 medium shallots, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
4 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 4 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon picked fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup white wine or sherry
½ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper

Brussels sprouts:
2 tablespoons canola oil
24 ounces Brussels sprouts, shredded on the grated disk in a food processor
salt and pepper
½ cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups whole milk
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
12 ounces mozzarella, shredded
salt and pepper

To assemble:
1 pound fresh lasagna noodles or 12 7-by-3-inch lasagna noodles, boiled and rinsed
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
½ cup (1 ounce) grated parmesan
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

1. For the mushrooms: Heat the butter in a large nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until the foaming subsides. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid they give off has evaporated and the mushrooms begin to sizzle and brown, about 12 minutes. When the mushrooms are browned, add the shallots, garlic, and thyme. Cook, stirring, until the shallots are translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits. Add ½ cup heavy cream and cook until the mixture is reduced to a loose paste, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large bowl; wipe out the skillet.

2. For the brussels sprouts: In the same skillet, heat the oil over high heat until shimmering. Add the shaved Brussels sprouts and a pinch of salt. Cook, tossing occasionally, until well-charred on most sides, about 10 minutes. Add ½ cup heavy cream and cook until reduced to a loose sauce-like consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper and transfer to the bowl with the mushrooms; stir them together.

3. For the bechamel: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture is pale brown and nutty, about 2 minutes. Whisking constantly, slowly add the milk in a thin, steady stream. Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg and 12 ounces mozzarella. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. To assemble: Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread one-sixth of the cheese sauce on the bottom of a 9-by13-inch baking dish. Cover the sauce with a slightly overlapping layer of boiled noodles, cutting them as needed to fill any gaps. Top with one-fourth of mushroom/sprouts mixture, another one-sixth of the cheese sauce, and a sprinkle of grated mozzarella. Repeat the pasta, sprouts, and sauce layering three more times. Layer a final layer of noodles, then cover with the remaining béchamel and mozzarella.

5. Transfer to oven and bake until heated through and top is browned and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with Parmesan and parsley, let rest 10 minutes, and serve.

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arugula salad with prosciutto, figs, walnuts, and parmesan

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This is my salad of the season. It seems like there’s always one, something I make every time we have a big meal (i.e., every Saturday night). This one was so good we had it for Sunday lunch too.

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Maybe I should start making soup as a first course instead of salad, especially this time of year, but this salad seems appropriate for winter. It has deep, rich flavors from the prosciutto, figs, and walnuts, so it doesn’t taste bright and light like a lot of summer salads do.

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And yet, even piled with crisp prosciutto and slivers of parmesan, it’s still a salad, still mostly vegetables. That makes it a great accompaniment to rich winter braises and casseroles. If this is my salad of the season, I’m glad it’s still early in the season.

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Arugula Salad with Prosciutto, Figs, Walnuts, and Parmesan (from Cook’s Illustrated)

4-6 servings

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into ¼-inch-wide ribbons
1 tablespoon raspberry jam or honey
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ cup dried figs, stems removed, fruit chopped into ¼-inch pieces
1 small shallot, very finely minced (about 1 tablespoon)
Table salt and ground black pepper
5 ounces lightly packed stemmed arugula (about 8 cups)
½ cup toasted, chopped walnuts
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved into thin strips with vegetable peeler

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat; add prosciutto and fry until crisp, stirring frequently, about 7 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer to paper-towel-lined plate and set aside to cool.

2. Whisk jam and vinegar in medium microwave-safe bowl; stir in figs. Cover with plastic wrap, cut several steam vents in plastic, and microwave on high until figs are plump, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons oil, shallot, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ⅛ teaspoon pepper; toss to combine. Let cool to room temperature.

3. Toss arugula and vinaigrette in large bowl; adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Divide salad among individual plates; top each with portion of prosciutto, walnuts, and Parmesan. Serve immediately.

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chocolate port wine cake

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I try not to be a hoarder. If I splurge on something, the last thing I want is for it to go to waste. That’s what almost happened with this bottle of port. We bought it last fall on a trip to Texas’s hill country, known for its wines. I have a friend who loves port, so we brought it over a few weeks later when we were invited to their house for dinner. And then, since port has a long shelf life, even after it’s opened, we put it back in the pantry.

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And that’s where it stayed, for a year. I think the problem is that I always think of port as pairing nicely with desserts, particularly chocolate, but Dave and I rarely eat dessert at home. I couldn’t bear to pour it down the drain, so instead, I put it in cake.

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Considering how good this cake was, the port can’t be said to have gone to waste. The port wasn’t an obvious flavor in the cake, but it must have contributed something to how rich and soft this cake was. Still, next time I buy an expensive bottle of wine, I’ll drink it with cake and save the cheap stuff for putting in the cake.

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Port Wine Chocolate Cake (rewritten but barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

8-12 servings

1 cup + 1 tablespoon (5.1 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (1.5 ounces) Dutch cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) firmly packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup port wine (tawny or ruby)

½ cup mascarpone cheese
½ cup chilled heavy or whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the cake: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper; butter and flour the bottoms and sides of the lined pan, or spray with baking spray. In a small bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon.

2. In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugars, and salt; beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the egg yolk, beat until fully incorporated, then add the whole egg. Add the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the dry ingredients, followed by half the wine, another one-third of the dry ingredients, the remaining wine, and the remaining dry ingredients.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a wire rack. Cool completely before topping, at least 1 hour. (The cake can be baked, cooled, tightly wrapped, and stored for at least one day before serving.)

4. For the topping: In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mascarpone, cream, sugar, and vanilla together until soft peaks form. Spread the topping over the cooled cake.

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pumpkin apple pizza

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As a general rule, I’m not a big fan of adding fruit to savory foods – but the more I try to define that rule, the more exceptions I find to it. I like the occasional salad with dried currants, figs on pizza, bacon-wrapped dates, cranberry sauce on my turkey sandwiches. I won’t be adding fruit to every salsa I make, but clearly I’m not completely grossed out by sweet/savory combinations.

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Still, I strongly considered leaving the apples off of this pizza. I don’t even love apples and pumpkin together in desserts, much less for dinner. But Kenji indicated that the apples would blend in, enhancing the pumpkin more than calling attention to themselves, so I compromised and kept the apples, but reduced them by half.

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I don’t agree that the apples blended in; for me, they were the strongest flavor. But, surprisingly for this supposed sweet+savory hater, it was a flavor that I liked. Pumpkin on its own is more earthy than sugary, and that combined with salty pancetta and three types of cheese made sweet cubes of apple a nice contrast. I have yet another exception to my no-fruit-in-dinner rule, but I still don’t think I’ll be adding pineapple to my guacamole anytime soon.

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Pumpkin Apple Pizza (rewritten and slightly changed from The Food Lab)

Makes 4 generous servings

I made half the recipe but cooked the entire pumpkin and apple, using the leftovers and more cheese to top crostini the next day.

You can leave the pancetta out (using 1 tablespoon butter to cook the apples and wedge of pumpkin), but I really like the combination of cured pork with winter squash.

1 pound homemade or store-bought pizza dough
1 small sugar pumpkin, quartered, seeds and pulp discarded
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons maple syrup
pinch ground cinnamon
pinch grated nutmeg
4 ounces pancetta, diced
1 crisp baking apple, such as Golden Delicious, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves, plus ¼ cup roughly torn leaves, divided
8 ounces (2 cups) shredded gruyère cheese
6 ounces (1½ cups) shredded mozzarella cheese
2 ounces (½ cup) grated parmesan cheese
2 scallions, thinly sliced

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Place three of the four pumpkin wedges in a medium oven-safe skillet. Spray or rub with 1 tablespoon oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 45 minutes, until the pumpkin flesh is very tender. Scrape the flesh from the skins; transfer to a medium mixing bowl and mix in the maple syrup, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Season to taste with more salt and pepper.

2. Place a pizza stone on a rack about 3 inches below the broiler and heat the oven as high as it goes. Shape the dough into 2 balls; cover and set aside for 10 to 30 minutes to allow the gluten to relax so the dough will be easier to stretch.

3. Peel and dice the remaining wedge of pumpkin. Heat the same skillet used to roast the pumpkin over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until its fat has rendered and it begins to brown (it will finish browning while the pizza bakes); transfer to a plate. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the diced pumpkin and apple to the rendered pancetta fat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and softened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons minced sage. Set aside.

3. Gently flatten the dough, then pick it up and stretch it out, trying to keep it as circular as possible. Curl your fingers and let the dough hang on your knuckles, moving and rotating the dough so it stretches evenly. If it tears, piece it together. If the dough stretches too much, put it down and gently tug on the thick spots.

4. Line a pizza peel (or the back of a baking sheet) with parchment paper and transfer the round of dough to the paper, rearranging it to something reasonably circular. Spread the roasted pumpkin mixture over the dough, leaving the outer ½-inch of dough uncovered. Top with half of the gruyere and half of the mozzarella, then half the pancetta, half the diced pumpkin and apples, and half of the remaining sage leaves. Top with half the parmesan. Transfer the pizza to the hot pizza stone.

5. Immediately turn the oven off and the broiler on (to high, if yours has settings). Bake the pizza for about 4-6 minutes, until the bottom is spotty browned and the cheese is bubbling. Transfer the pizza to a cooling rack; sprinkle with half the scallions. Cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

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sweet potato cake

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As far as I can remember, my mom only prepared sweet potatoes one way when I was growing up, and I don’t know exactly what that is, because I wouldn’t eat them. They were the only dish I was ever allowed to skip without even a no-thank-you helping. She served them twice a year, at Thanksgiving and then a month later when we repeated the Thanksgiving meal on Christmas. I don’t think anyone ate them except my mom and my brother-in-law.

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I was in my twenties the first time I saw someone serve sweet potatoes any other way. They were simply roasted and served with salt and pepper. It was a revelation to me that sweet potatoes could be served without sugar and syrup and marshmallows. These days, I like sweet potatoes okay, but with dinner, I prefer to pair them with savory ingredients. Adding sugar to potatoes that are already sweet seems like serving dessert on the same plate as dinner.

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No, if I decide to add sugar to sweet potatoes, it will be to make them into something that is unmistakeably dessert. With only 1 cup of mashed sweet potatoes in a 3-layer cake, this cake doesn’t taste overwhelmingly of sweet potatoes, but it is a pretty orange color, not to mention light and fluffy and moist, everything you want in a cake. If you’re going to add a bunch of sugar to your sweet potatoes, this is the way to do it.

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Sweet Potato Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (slightly adapted from Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne’s Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes )

2 medium or 1 large sweet potato (12 ounces)
3 cups (12 ounces) cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
5 eggs, separated
2¼ cups (15.75 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon table salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups milk, room temperature

10 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, room temperature
3 cups (12 ounces) powdered sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons maple syrup

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick each sweet potato with a fork in 5-6 places; place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour or until the potatoes are very soft. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. When the potatoes are cool, peel off the skin and remove any dark spots. Cut the potatoes into chunks and puree in a food processor until smooth. Measure out one cup of potato puree; discard the rest or save for another use.

2. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Butter and flour the bottoms and sides of three 8- or 9-inch pans, or spray with baking spray. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper; grease the paper. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves; set aside.

3. In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until frothy. Increase the speed to high and gradually add ¼ cup sugar. Continue to beat until the egg whites are moderately stiff. Transfer the egg whites to a separate bowl.

4. In the same bowl (no need to wash it), with the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sweet potato, butter, vanilla, remaining sugar, and salt; beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each egg yolk is added. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the dry ingredients, followed by half the milk, another one-third of the dry ingredients, the remaining milk, and the remaining dry ingredients.

5. With a large spatula, fold in one-fourth of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it. Fold in the remaining egg whites until no streaks remain, making sure to not over mix. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

6. Bake for 25-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake layer comes out clean. Let the cake layers cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks. Cool completely before frosting, at least 1 hour.

7. For the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer, add the sugar, and mix on low speed until the sugar is incorporated; increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until light and smooth, 2-3 minutes. Mix in the maple syrup.

8. To assemble: Transfer one cake layer to a serving platter. Evenly spread ⅛-inch frosting over the top. Top with a second cake layer and another layer of frosting, then the third cake layer. If you have time, spread a very thin layer of frosting over the top and sides of the cake; chill, uncovered, for 30 minutes; this step will reduce crumbs in your final layer of frosting. Spread the remaining frosting evenly over the top and sides of the cake.

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sweet potato mezzalune with sausage ricotta filling

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Last year, I got all excited about turchetta and couldn’t wait to get started cooking it as part of a big turkey feast. And then I waited, and waited, and waited, until I had time to spend two days cooking an extravagant meal (not required, I realize, but I love doing it). It was January before I could dedicate the time, plus round up some friends to help us eat all the food I insist on making.

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The wait wasn’t bad though, because it gave me time to peruse untold numbers of recipes to find just the right ones for my fusion of Italian food and Thanksgiving food. That was my favorite part. I had a lot of fun cooking too. The meal itself…well…of the thirteen recipes I made, I’ve chosen to share just four with you (although the rustic dinner rolls were really good too). The turchetta and wine-braised turkey legs were overcooked, the pumpkin panna cotta separated, the green bean pasticcio wasn’t beany enough.

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Or maybe the main meal just didn’t seem as good because I’d already filled up on the mezzalune I served as an appetizer. Mezzalune are like ravioli, but wrapped in gnocchi dough instead of pasta dough. Gnocchi dough, it turns out, is easier to work with than fresh pasta; it’s sticky, but on a well-floured surface, it stretches easily and doesn’t break.

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I made turkey sausage with the turkey tenderloins that don’t get used in the turchetta, but if you don’t feel the need to go overboard on everything, feel free to just buy some sausage, turkey or otherwise. (I also made these with homemade venison sausage for Game Night.) The mezzalune can be formed and boiled ahead of time, so when it’s time to eat, you just need to add them to a skillet with some butter and push them around a bit until they’re nice and crisp and brown. And then don’t spoil your dinner by filling up on them. Or, even better, make these your dinner so you can eat as many as you want.

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Sweet Potato Mezzalune with Turkey Sausage Ricotta Filling (mezzalune inspiration from John Besh; gnocchi from Gourmet via epicurious; filling from Lidia Bastianich)

Makes about 50 appetizer-sized dumplings

1¼ pounds russet potatoes
1 (¾-pound) sweet potato
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1½ to 2 cups (7.2 to 9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
⅓ cup (0.67 ounce) grated parmesan cheese

12 ounces turkey sausage
1 cup ricotta
¼ cup (½ ounce) grated parmesan
¼ cup minced parsley

4 tablespoons butter
additional minced parsley for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Pierce the russet and sweet potatoes in several places with a fork. Arrange on a rimmed baking sheet and bake, turning once, until no resistance is met when pierced with a fork or skewer. Cool the potatoes slightly, then peel and force through a ricer or the fine holes of a food mill into a large bowl. Spread the potatoes over the surface and up the sides of the bowl to allow steam to evaporate. Cool potatoes completely, stirring once or twice to release more steam.

2. Push the potatoes to the sides of the bowl, forming a well in the center. In the well, beat together the egg, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir the egg mixture into the potatoes. Add 1½ cups of flour and ⅓ cup parmesan to the potatoes, kneading to evenly incorporate. Add additional flour as necessary, until the mixture forms a smooth but slightly sticky dough.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the sausage, ricotta, ¼ cup parmesan, and parsley.

4. Divide the dough in half. On a well-floured surface, roll half of the dough to 1/16- to ⅛-inch thickness (a millimeter or two), flouring the top of and below the dough as necessary. Use a 2½-inch round cutter to cut as many circles as possible. Scoop a scant 1 tablespoon of filling into the center of each round. Working one a time, pick up a round, gently pull two opposite sides of the circle, then fold the stretched ends of the dough over the filling, pinching the edges to seal. Transfer to a floured tray or baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining cut rounds. Before re-rolling the scraps, roll, cut, fill, and seal the other half of the dough. Re-roll the scraps as necessary to use up the remaining filling.

5. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-high, add one-quarter of the mezzalune, and cook until they begin to float, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mezzalune to a tray or damp dishtowel. Repeat with the remaining mezzalune. At this point, the mezzalune can be covered and chilled for several hours before finishing.

6. In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Transfer half of the mezzalune to the skillet. Cook, flipping occasionally, until browned and crisp on both sides, about 5 minutes. Repeat with the remaining mezzalune. Serve immediately, topping with the remaining parsley.

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pumpkin oatmeal brulee

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This is a great way to make oatmeal a little more special without making it much more work. It’s cooked the same way as regular steel-cut oats, except pumpkin and sugar are stirred in part way through cooking. The only extra step is a fun one – playing with fire.

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The biggest difference between brûléeing a solid custard like crème brûlée compared to brûléeing oatmeal is that oatmeal is wetter. This means the sugar has a tendency to dissolve into the oatmeal. Fortunately, once you pour the oatmeal into serving dishes, a skin starts to form on top after a few minutes, providing a dryer surface for the sugar to rest before it’s caramelized.

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Because of the crackly sweet layer on top of the oatmeal, only half a tablespoon per serving is necessary stirred in the oatmeal itself. That’s enough to bring out the flavor of the pumpkin and still provide a little constrast with the topping. Warm and soothing, spiced and sweet, this is a perfectly comforting cold weather breakfast.

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Pumpkin Oatmeal Brûlée (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Perfect Oatmeal)

I’ve had better luck brûléeing sugar with larger crystals, which is why demerara is recommended. Turbinado or sanding sugar should work too. Without any special sugars, an even mixture of granulated and brown sugar has worked well for me in the past. It’s difficult to estimate how much you’ll need, as it will depend on the size and shape of the bowls.

2½ cups water
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup steel-cut oats
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 cup pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
demerara sugar, or a mix of white sugar and brown sugar, for topping

1. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the water and milk until simmering.

2. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the oats and cook, stirring constantly, until the oats start to smell like butterscotch, 2-3 minutes. Add the spices and continue to stir constantly until the spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour the oat/spice mixture into the milk and water.

3. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Add the pumpkin, brown sugar, and salt, and continue to simmer lightly, stirring occasionally, until the oatmeal is thick and creamy. Immediately pour the oatmeal into serving bowls. Set aside for 5-10 minutes for a skin to form on top.

4. Working with one bowl at a time, distribute an even layer of the demerara sugar over the oatmeal. With a butane torch, immediately caramelize the sugar. Repeat with the remaining bowls; serve immediately.

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